Hvalfjörður is a fjord located about half an hour from Reykjavík. Once, the only way to the west, Westfjords and north was by driving around it but nowadays, the main route passes through Hvalfjarðargöng; a tunnel which opened in 1998 as an alternative to the hour-long drive around the fjord. Ever since the opening of the tunnel, the alternative route, 47, around the Hvalfjörður fjord has become the road less travelled by the masses. We decided to take the tour around the fjord, to see if it was something we should recommend.
Starting out from Reykjavík, you’ll first join the masses out of the city. Driving past Esjan and through the sleep town of Kjalarnes is a mundane task, although if it’s your first time out in the Icelandic countryside, I’m guessing it will feel a little more majestic than mundane. As soon as you change lanes, however, and take a turn onto road 47, you will drive out of the car flow onto a spacious road – nearly all by yourself. The lack of cars rushing by gives you the visual space to enjoy the mountains and the fjord at its finest. You can drive as slow as you like here, unlike the main road, just be careful to let other cars pass you (and this should go without saying but don’t stop your car in the middle of the road to take photos, even if it doesn’t look like there’s anyone around. Wait for a rest stop or a side road where you can stop, the locals will appreciate it.).
When driving around the Hvalfjörður fjord you will encounter an area with a small waterfall next to a maze-looking stack of stones. This stack of stones is called a rétt in Icelandic and serves as an aid for tagging sheep during a round-up, after the sheep are brought down from the mountain where they’ve spent the summer. No kids play after all, although some sheep must have felt a bit confused in that maze.
At the head of the fjord stands a square building. It’s in rough shape, with graffiti on all sides, but ask any Icelander (who was alive and old enough to travel in 1998) and they’ll likely have fond memories of the place. Botnsskáli used to be a rest stop on the way to Reykjavík when this was one of the most travelled roads in Iceland and many of them remember stopping for Ice cream, a hot meal, or just a bathroom break on a long trip in their youth. If you’re a keen hiker, Botnsskáli is also the starting/end point for a 20 km hiking trail to Þingvellir. The hike is known as Leggjabrjótur which roughly translates to Legbreaker.
Getting hungry, or simply need a break? The Brynjudalsfoss waterfall is only a five minutes’ drive from the main road and quite unknown (aka peaceful, aka perfect for a stop). Ideal circumstances for a nice break, a lunch stop or simply make a calming stop-by. The waterfall is part of the Brynjudalsá salmon river. While driving up to the waterfall you will pass the salmon ladders. The ladders were created to make it simpler for the salmon to return back to their birth river after they’ve spent their adult life in the ocean. While this may sound like a noble gesture on behalf of the Icelanders, truthfully, the ladders were only built to make it easier for the fishers to catch larger quantities of salmon. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Glymur was once deemed the ‘tallest waterfall in Iceland’, but had to hand over its title after the discovery of a new waterfall at the edge of Morsárjökull. That being said, Glymur is still really tall and really impressive. But, this previously record-holding waterfall doesn’t show itself easily. You have to work a bit for it; a steep 2-hour hike. To ease the burn in your legs a bit; this hike is considered to be one of the prettiest in Iceland (and that says a lot). You cross a stream on a log, walk through a cave and make your way across the waterfall’s river barefooted. The scenery will soften the straining feeling and make it majorly worth it. Not to mention how beautiful it is to look at the waterfall once you’re up. Coming down from Glymur should take around 1 to 1.5 hours. You descend on a swirling path through a variety of trees and bushes, leading you back to your car. Hooray, you made it!
So, is Hvalfjörður worth the drive? Definitely! If you’re going west or north and have plenty of time, it’s a great alternative to the tunnel but it also makes for a great day tour. Aside from the beautiful waterfalls and stunning scenery, we also recommend stopping by the Bjarteyjarsandur farm (book in advance), the Occupation museum at Hlaðir and the swimming pool there, which is perfect after a hike through the stunning scenery in Hvalfjörður.